Intel takes on embedded market with Atom chip

Taking a jab at the embedded market, Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) this week said it was working on new x86 chips to use in devices ranging from consumer electronics to mobile phones.

Intel is developing more than 15 system-on-chips based on the x86 core found in Intel’s Atom chip, which can be found in mobile Internet devices and low-cost laptops.

By using the Atom core, the company is trying to increase performance and drop power consumption on the new chips, said Gadi Singer, vice-president of Intel’s mobility group, at a press event in San Francisco.

Information and entertainment centers in cars, for example, will be much richer and demand higher-bandwidth connections to the Internet, so chips need to deliver better performance-per-watt, Singer said. The new chips will include subsystems to accelerate applications for video decoding and security.

Intel has already said it is working on an Atom successor codenamed Moorestown, due for release in 2009-2010 timeframe. The platform includes an SOC code-named Lincroft, based on a 45-nanometer Atom core.

The company also has chips based on the Atom core under development for set-top boxes, including Canmore, which will be released later this year, and Sodaville, due for launch next year.

Although the power-efficient design fits well in mobile devices, Intel enters as a challenger, not an incumbent, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at Insight 64. Arm is the market leader in the mobile space.

“The issue for Intel is whether can they begin to exploit the ubiquity of … software environments and technical expertise surrounding x86 to start chipping away at Arm,” Brookwood said.

Many other architectures, including PowerPC, used by Freescale and Motorola, and MIPS (million instructions per second), used by Broadcom, are strong players in this market, Brookwood said. The PowerPC architecture has a strong presence in the telecommunication and automotive space, Brookwood said.

Although Intel has been a player in the embedded space for 30 years, in the past it has seen platform and compatibility problems, Doug Davis, vice-president of Intel’s digital enterprise group.

Intel’s earlier XScale chips, built using Arm’s core, affected its ability to lead with its own architecture, Davis said. The company ultimately sold the handheld processor unit to Marvell Technology for US$600 million in 2006.

By building Intel architecture in the new chips, Intel will deliver compatibility and the standardize software for use across multiple devices, Davis said.

The company also announced eight system-on-chips for set-top boxes on Wednesday. The EP80579 chips, made using the Pentium M core, runs between 600MHz and 1.2GHz, integrates a memory controller, and consumes between 11 watts to 21 watts of power. The Pentium M architecture was used to develop the chips as the design was available during chip development, Davis said. Going forward, all system-on-chips will be designed using the Atom processor core.

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Agam Shah
Agam Shah
Agam Shah is a reporter for the IDG News Service in New York. He covers hardware including PCs, servers, tablets, chips, semiconductors, consumer electronics and peripherals.

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